Mission Impossible?

Posted on Jan 7, 2013 | 2 Comments

The man whom Barack Obama nominated today to be the next Secretary of Defense, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, will face a tough fight for confirmation. If approved, he may face an even tougher fight in the job.

Running the Pentagon is difficult even in the best of times. Today, however, America’s forces are spread thin, and money is in short supply. That’s one reason Obama touted Hagel as a man who could make “tough fiscal choices.”

Peter Drucker had a lot of sympathy for the men he’d seen in the post, for he viewed taming the Defense Department as one of the toughest jobs conceivable.

One area of trouble was in defense procurement, a system dating back to World War II that, at its worst, has amounted to an absurd and wasteful collusion between semi-private defense contractors and the federal government. “Yet everyone concerned also knows that any attempt to think through and restructure the relationship would immediately run into philosophical contradictions and irreconcilable differences between ‘what ought to be’ and what is needed,” Drucker observed in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “As one high Defense Department official once put it, ‘We know it’s chaos; but that’s still better than paralysis.’”

Image source: DVIDSHUB

Image source: DVIDSHUB

Another area of trouble, in Drucker’s eyes, was the unwieldiness of all the entities under DOD’s umbrella. “The Department of Defense of the United States has so far been incapable of organizing for any effective joint performance other than to destroy a succession of Secretaries of Defense,” Drucker wrote in the late 1950s in Landmarks of Tomorrow. “But is this because it is too large? Or because it is not large enough, that is, because we still retain three armed services instead of merging them into one? . . . I incline to the latter view; but I cannot prove it.”

Over a decade later, Drucker still considered the job to be a possible “widow maker,” the sort of post that keeps defeating qualified people. “Despite Mr. [RobertMcNamara’s lion-taming act at the Pentagon, I am not yet convinced that the job of Secretary of Defense of the United States is really possible,” he noted in The Effective Executive. So what was the solution?  Wrote Drucker: “I admit I cannot conceive of an alternative.” 

What do you think: Is it possible to be a successful Defense secretary—and did Obama pick the right person for the job?


  1. Greg Zerovnik
    January 12, 2013

    It depends on what we mean by “success.” I think it’s possible for a Sec Def to communicate effectively and encourage collegiality between and among the various armed forces and their suppliers/contractors. A “good” Sec Def can interact constructively with State, the CIA, and Homeland Security.

    That said, any Sec Def is always expected to be the executor of the President’s mission and vision for the post. If that mission and vision lack clarity or are internally inconsistent in some way, that compromises his or her ability to take actions that fulfill the broader mission of protecting the country from its enemies.

    Given Obama’s public pronouncements prior to his first term and shortly after he took office when he went on what has been called by some “the apology tour” to the Mideast, Hagel seems to be a good fit with the President’s own vision. The real question is whether or not that’s the right vision for the USA, and clearly there are many would say “No.”

  2. What Peter Drucker Would Be Reading | The Drucker Exchange | Daily Blog by The Drucker Institute
    February 6, 2013

    [...]  Last week, when Barack Obama nominated Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense, we noted that Peter Drucker considered the job to be structurally nearly impossible. Would Hagel have any [...]


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